SSAT Upper Level Reading : Understanding and Evaluating Opinions and Arguments in Poetry Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Upper Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #5 : Main Idea, Details, Opinions, And Arguments In Poetry Passages

Adapted from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ln. 1-77 (1808; trans. Taylor 1870)

I've studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine, -
And even, alas! Theology,
From end to end, with labor keen;
And here, poor fool! with all my lore
I stand, no wiser than before.
I'm Magister—yea, Doctor—hight,
And straight or cross-wise, wrong or right,
These ten years long, with many woes,
I've led my scholars by the nose,—
And see, that nothing can be known!
That knowledge cuts me to the bone.
I'm cleverer, true, than those fops of teachers,
Doctors and Magisters, Scribes and Preachers;
Neither scruples nor doubts come now to smite me,
Nor Hell nor Devil can longer affright me.
For this, all pleasure am I foregoing;
I do not pretend to aught worth knowing.
I do not pretend I could be a teacher
To help or convert a fellow-creature.
Then, too, I've neither lands nor gold,
Nor the world's least pomp or honor hold—
No dog would endure such a cursed existence!
Wherefore, from Magic I seek assistance,
That many a secret perchance I reach
Through spirit-power and spirit-speech,
And thus the biter task forego
Of saying the things I do not know,—
That I may detect the inmost force
Which binds the world, and guides its course;
Its germs, productive powers explore,
And rummage in empty words no more!

O full and splendid Moon, whom I
Have, from this desk, seen climb the sky
So many a midnight,—would thy glow
For the last time beheld my woe!
Ever thine eye, most mournful friend,
O'er books and papers saw me bend;
But would that I, on mountains grand,
Amid thy blessed light could stand,
With spirits through mountain-caverns hover,
Float in thy twilight the meadows over,
And, freed from the fumes of lore that swathe me,
To health in thy dewy fountains bathe me!

Ah, me! This dungeon still I see.
This drear, accursed masonry,
Where even the welcome daylight strains
But duskly through the painted panes.
Hemmed in by many a toppling heap
Of books worm-eaten, gray with dust,
Which to the vaulted ceiling creep,
Against the smoky paper thrust,—
With glasses, boxes, round me stacked,
And instruments together hurled,
Ancestral lumber, stuffed and packed—
Such is my world: and what a world!

And do I ask, wherefore my heart
Falters, oppressed with unknown needs?
Why some inexplicable smart
All movement of my life impedes?
Alas! In living Nature’s stead,
Where God His human creature set,
In smoke and mold the fleshless dead
And bones of beasts surround me yet!

Fly! Up, and seek the broad, free land!
And this one Book of Mystery
From Nostradamus’ very hand,
Is’t not sufficient company?
When I the starry courses know,
And Nature’s wise instruction seek,
With light of power my soul shall glow,
As when to spirits spirits speak.
'Tis vain, this empty brooding here,
Though guessed the holy symbols be:
Ye, Spirits, come—ye hover near—
Oh, if you hear me, answer me!

What knowledge is it that “cuts to the bone” in the underlined selection?

Possible Answers:

The fact that studies take a great deal of time to accomplish anything

The fact that theology studies do not teach anything

The fact that he knows more than many others

The arrogant knowledge of the academy

The futility of coming to true knowledge

Correct answer:

The futility of coming to true knowledge


Do not be tempted beyond the immediate context. Directly before this sentence, Faust states, "And see: nothing can be known!" It is knowledge of this fact—the fact that nothing can be known—that "cuts to the bone." It disturbs him deeply and has led him to the state in which we find him at this point of the narrative.

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